One judge-one district for Cook County?
By CHARLES N. WHEELER III
Cook County's peculiar form of merit judicial selection has weathered the Operation Greylord scandal. Constitutional reformers likewise were unable to touch the system under which, to paraphrase the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, judicial hopefuls with merit in the eyes of Democratic party slatemakers were selected for the bench. But the hoary tradition finally may have met its match in a pending federal lawsuit by three Democratic legislators.
If the court action succeeds, however, the outcome probably won't please those who want judges to be appointed by the governor instead of slated by party leaders for voter ratification. Instead, the result would be continued election of judges in Cook County, but from smaller, perhaps even individual, districts.
Both the suit and legislative attempts to restructure the Cook County judiciary reflect a growing desire among blacks and Hispanics to pick their own judges, rather than accede to the slatemakers, or, for that matter, the governor. "It's important for us to choose who we want," explained Rep. Paul L. Williams (D-24, Chicago), a plaintiff in the federal suit. "Slating makes it impossible."
In court, Williams and two other Chicago Democrats, Rep. Anthony L. Young (17th) and Sen. Miguel del Valle (5th), are arguing that the at-large system of electing Illinois Supreme and Appellate court justices and circuit court judges in Cook County dilutes the voting strength of blacks and Hispanics in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. While the county's population is about 35 percent minority, there has never been a black or Hispanic elected to one of the county's three Supreme Court seats, the trio says. A third of the appellate bench in Cook County is black or Hispanic, but minorities make up only about 12 percent of the 177 county trial judges.
While some legal scholars doubt the landmark civil rights law applies to the judiciary, those challenging the system were heartened by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling which cleared the way for a challenge on similar grounds to the way Louisiana's top court is elected. The suit is a matter of " fairness and equity," William said. "None of us need fear equality and all of us should be concerned about obvious lack of equal rights."
The same principles guided lawmakers pushing to carve Cook County into smaller districts for judicial elections. One proposal, for example, would divide the county into 18 subdistricts, each electing an appellate justice and 20 circuit court judges. The subdistricts would be combined into three larger groups, with one Supreme Court justice elected from each. Under such a system, "people would know who they're voting for," said Williams, one of its sponsors. "With this huge conglomeration, it's impossible for an independent or a minority to win."
Republicans and downstaters helped minority lawmakers push the plan through the Senate, before it foundered in the House under concerted opposition from Cook County Democratic regulars. Behind GOP support for the plan was the belief that Republicans, too, would do better if their judicial candidates ran in smaller districts, and demographic analysis seems to bear that premise out. Currently, the county's 177 trial judges include 94 elected in county wide contests, where Democrats usually prevail, and 56 elected citywide, where Democrats always win. Republicans can count on only the 27 judgeships from suburban Cook County.
If the county were divided for judicial elections into 18 districts of roughly equal population, however, suburban areas would be entitled to about 7.5 of them while Chicago would have about 10.5, based on the most recent population estimates. Republican judicial candidates would be expected to do quite well in suburban areas, so the GOP could compete realistically
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for a third or more of the circuit judgeships and perhaps even elect a high court justice. Cook County regular Democrats oppose the plan for the same reason they don't want to lose judicial spots to the GOP. Their concern, of course, has very little to do with any perceived differences between Democratic and Republican jurisprudence. Rather, it's a matter of which party gets to hand out the coveted plums to the lawyers who labor in its vineyards.
That argument, though, has little appeal for the minority lawmakers seeking the change. Some Democratic strategists fear, Williams noted, that the party would lose one of its Supreme Court spots were Cook County divided into three districts. "They can't elect three Democrats to the Supreme Court without the black vote in Cook County," he said, "but they've steadfastly refused to slate or support a black for that seat."
The district plan also came under fire from the Chicago Bar Association (CBA), which has helped legitimize slatemaking by screening potential candidates. In a letter to House members, the lawyers' group complained that the plan would create another 183 judgeships in Cook County at a cost of more than $14 million a year, indeed a troubling point.
The bar association was less persuasive, however, in terming the creation of the 18 subdistricts the "most invidious aspect" of the measure. "Clearly, the creation of small, multi-districts would make judges immediately and directly responsible to small constituencies and place them at the mercy of the politicians who control these small constituencies." But the CBA's legal eagles must have forgotten how the court system is set up in Illinois outside Cook County. In fact, a dozen of the 22 other judicial circuits now have fewer people than the 294,000-plus that would live in each Cook subdistrict.
While the regulars may fight a holding action for a while, Williams is convinced that change will come. "I'm not going to go away with this thing," he said. "I'm going to keep going until the party satisfactorily addresses this problem. . . . It's going to happen," he added. "All they're doing is delaying the inevitable."
Charles N. Wheeler III is a correspondent in the Springfield Bureau of the Chicago Sun-Times.
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